For the past few months, I’ve been highlighting websites where you can experience a free trial or a deal that lets you see great movies for free. This time I’m showing you a site that gives you great films that are always free.
Films, like any work of art, has a copyright to it. Nowadays it’s very easy to make sure that the copyright is maintained forever, but there are many films that don’t have it anymore. They are now part of the public domain. That means any DVD company can clean up the copy and release their own version. Criterion made a really good version of Charade, but the original version of Charade can still be legally downloaded for free.
They aren’t in the best condition, but the movies still hold up as solid works of art. The best place to find these films is Archive.org, a website devoted to be a internet library. Here are ten classics you should definitely check out. What do you have to lose?
A lot of the films on this list are going to be silent. It was at a time when film was a new medium and most of the movies made fell into the public domain. That includes this incredible silent Russian film. There was a director named Sergei Eisenstein who made a lot of powerful films about rebellion. This was his most famous as he depicted the uprising of a Russian battleship. The soldiers rise up from unjust conditions and violence begins.
One of the most famous sequences in the film is the Odessa Staircase scene. It’s a scene that mixes his incredible use of epic editing. It inspired a ton of filmmakers including Brian de Palma who completely ripped it off for a scene near the end of The Untouchables. Be sure to see what came first.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
There was a significant period in history when Germany was making the best films in the world. It was called German Expressionism where directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau were reigning. They were films that had a creepy look and challenged the realism of the worlds. Their influence is still seen on all of Tim Burton’s work. One of my favorites of the film is the very odd story of a murderer and the creepy Dr. Caligari. The plot twists more than you would expect from a silent film with a really great ending.
D.W. Griffith is known for making The Birth of a Nation, an incredible achievement in cinema that introduced the idea of an epic film. Everyone should see it for its historical significance. Unfortunately it’s also crazy racist. Hearing the complaints, Griffith made this film, which I think is even better. It’s 3.5 hours long and spans the course of time. Showing stories from Babylon, the Bible, the French Renaissance and “modern” day. It’s surrounded by emotion and scope. Film fans today rarely get the chance to see hundreds of extras in a shot without any use of computer effects. Also it has the gorgeous Lillian Gish which alone makes this a must see.
There are tons of Charlie Chaplin films in the public domain. It’s a lot of his comedic silent films and shorts. One that I think is overlooked is The Kid. Playing the Little Tramp’s sidekick is almost an impossible task. The character is so iconic and pitch perfect, how can someone play a miniature version? I don’t know how they found Jackie Coogan but I’m thrilled they did. Together they pull off little scams and experience incredible drama as they try to stay together.
Before Alfred Hitchcock came to America with his Best Picture winner Rebecca, he made a bunch of films in England. Sure enough, these are the ones in the public domain. The site has some good ones like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, but I’m going to recommend his first great film, The Lodger. It’s his best silent film about a Jack the Ripper-esque killer. Everyone in the building thinks the new tenant is the killer. Is he?
Peter Lorre is a goofy looking dude. His voice and face is famous from his small but important parts in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. It was in Germany when he had the part of his life. He is a child murderer who is pursued by the local police. Lorre plays the role, not as a villain but as a man. He’s scary and sometimes sympathetic and then scary again. This is considered one of the greatest films of all time and the hallmark of Lang’s career.
Night of the Living Dead
Yep, this is also in public domain. The zombie film that started them all messed up its paperwork and is now forever free to anyone. It’s not my favorite Romero film, but it does so many things right. There is a sense of dread and desperation that is now a staple of the genre. Told from the personal point of view of a few survivors, they are just trying to stay alive while the dead rise up again. It’s what every low-budget horror film hopes to be.
If I mention Chaplin, I better mention Buster Keaton. The other king of the silent film has a good number of films on here as well. Some of my favorites are missing, but this one is spellbinding. It’s only 45 minutes long and has been another one that has influenced major directors, especially Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams of walking into a film. There are plenty of stunts and gags, but what everyone remembers is the film’s wonderful imagination.
The Thief of Bagdad
This film works because of one man: Mr. Douglas Fairbanks. It’s an exciting film full of adventure and spectacle as they play upon some of the Arabian Tales. The sets and effects are impressive, but it’s the endless energy from Fairbanks that makes this movie so much fun. The 1940 version is often talked about more because of the Archer’s use of color and thrills, but this one holds up as a equal.
A Trip to the Moon
It’s only 11 minutes long and can be found any number of places. The image of a rocket crashing into the moon is seen all over. It premiered in 1902 and further introduced the element of magic to the cinema. Not in terms of plot, because that is purely science fiction. Director Georges Melies was a magician before he started to make short films. He uses the concepts of creatively fooling the audience with his editing. With this short he makes an incredibly charming, inspiring tale of some men who dream to go to the moon and make it possible.
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